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Five conference games, nationally watched non-league matchups share spotlight
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – The arrival of October traditionally coincides with the heating up of conference play for college football teams across the nation.
That definitely holds true in the Atlantic Coast Conference this weekend, where a pair of Atlantic Division matchups (No. 11 Florida State at Wake Forest, Louisville at NC State), two Coastal Division battles (North Carolina at Georgia Tech, Pitt at Virginia Tech) and one inter-division contest (Boston College at Duke) hold prominent billing.
But non-conference games involving ACC teams remain very much in the national spotlight. Unbeaten Miami takes center stage when it travels to Cincinnati for ESPN’s prime time Thursday night game.
The weekend slate concludes with Saturday night’s much-anticipated Death Valley showdown between sixth-ranked Notre Dame and 12th-ranked Clemson. ESPN’s GameDay will be making its fourth trip to Clemson and its 35th to an ACC school, and ABC will televise the 8 p.m. game to a national audience.
“I've got people calling me that I haven't talked to in 20 years,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They’re asking ‘Hey, man, got some tickets? I really want to come up this weekend. Just need five.’ “
THURSDAY NIGHT CHALLENGE
As Miami tries to wrap up its non-conference regular-season schedule unblemished at 4-0, head coach Al Golden doesn’t want the hype that inevitably comes with any Thursday night ESPN game to be a distraction.
“I hope we’re to the point now where we just want to come out and play our game, no matter where we are,” Golden said. “It’s exciting. They’re going to feel the energy, and they know the challenge, they know the environment. We’ve tried to make it really tough for them all week. For our guys, I think you know by now, I’m trying to create a consistent team – a team that wherever they are, they stay together, they communicate really well and they eliminate a lot of the bad ball. That’s going to be a challenge.”
Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium was built in 1924 and is technically the fifth-oldest active college venue in the nation, but a series of renovations over the past decade have increased capacity and have fans buzzing with excitement.
The comparatively small stadium’s seating capacity is now 40,000. Attendance for the Bearcats’ first two home games ranked as the two largest on-campus crowds in school history. With the Hurricanes rolling in on Thursday night, a new standard likely looms.
“Clearly it’s a tight environment and a tough place to play,” Golden said. “Our guys know what the challenge is. We’ve been working on it…a lot of sound in all three phases. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
More worrisome than crowd nose is an up-tempo Cincinnati offense that ranks third nationally in total offensive yards per game (622.5) and second in passing yards per game (412.5).
“You have to get some stops, you have to get off the field on third down,” Golden said in assessing how to slow down the Bearcats. “You have to find a way to get to the quarterback or take the ball away. There are great challenges there. If you don’t do any number of the things I just mentioned, you’re going to be in for a long day.”
EXCITEMENT IN TIGER TOWN
The Tigers’ Swinney hasn’t even tried to hide his emotions as Notre Dame prepares to make its second-ever trip to Clemson and its first since 1977.
“(I’m) excited to have the opportunity to play Notre Dame,” Swinney said. “Never had a chance to coach against Notre Dame, play against Notre Dame. Incredible respect for their program and who they are. Obviously everybody knows who Notre Dame is, and the success that they've had.”
For those few who might not know, Swinney elaborated.
“They've won, whatever, 11 National Championships, and they're Notre Dame,” he said. “I mean, listen, I hope they don't bring Joe Montana with them, I can tell you that. They're just a great program that has had tons of great players, and All-Americans and great coaches, and they're a brand of their own.”
But Clemson boasts a rich football history of its own. And – even though the visiting team won each of the previous two games in this series – Saturday night’s screaming home crowd of 82,000 can’t hurt.
“How many people get the opportunity to compete and do something you love doing, but yet everybody's watching?” Swinney asked. “I just think that's awesome. So you embrace that and go have fun with it. Our guys are excited. They're excited about having that opportunity to showcase their talents and our program.”
YELLOW JACKETS SEEK TURNAROUND
The previous two weeks weren’t kind to Georgia Tech, with road losses to Notre Dame and Duke derailing what had been a fast-track offensive start. The Yellow Jackets hope to find their bearings and remain in thick of the Coastal Division race when North Carolina visits Bobby Dodd Stadium this Saturday.
“Glad to have a chance to come back home and play,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “Even though it has only been two weeks, it seems like an eternity since we have played a game here.”
UNC, which won last year’s high-scoring game between the teams last year in Chapel Hill, is riding a three-game winning streak. The Tar Heels return most of their potent offensive weapons from the 2014 squad and appear to have improved defensively.
“We have got to fix ourselves,” Johnson said. “It is like I told the coaches, ‘we have to fix ourselves.’ North Carolina will have a good team when they come in here, but I am more worried about fixing our problems. We have problems that we have to take care of from an execution standpoint.”
While the Yellow Jackets need to elevate their play, Johnson does not sense his team’s confidence has taken a hit.
“I think that generally, today in society, kids are pretty confident guys,” Johnson said. “I think our guys have played enough here and they have had enough success offensively. I think that they are disappointed in the way we played because that is not normal.
“You never are going to be perfect all of the time, but I think they know we can play a lot better than we played. I don't think the confidence is an issue, I think they are disappointed. Because when they watch it, they cannot believe it. They cannot tell you why they did that. We have just got to relax and play.”
NO QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY
North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora reiterated on Wednesday that it was an “easy decision” to stick with senior Marquise Williams as the starting quarterback for this week’s game at Georgia Tech.
Questions have been in abundance since last Saturday, when sophomore Mitch Trubisky replaced Williams in the first half of the Tar Heels’ eventual 41-14 win over Delaware. Trubisky proceeded to earn ACC Offensive Back of the Week honors by completing 17 of 20 passes for 312 yards and four touchdowns.
But Fedora isn’t ready to change course permanently. Williams doesn’t hold a batch of school offensive records by luck or happenstance, and he will be back under center when UNC opens ACC play in Atlanta.
“(Williams) knows that I have complete confidence in him, so I don’t think that there’s an issue,” Fedora said. “I don’t want to start some type of controversy here or anything, ‘cause there’s not. There’s really not.”
Almost all observers regard Louisville’s 1-3 record to date as deceptive, including NC State third-year head coach Dave Doeren.
Doeren’s team begins ACC play by hosting the Cardinals on Saturday afternoon, and Doeren puts the game on par with the conference openers faced by his first two Wolfpack teams.
“We lost to Clemson my first year in a tough opener,” Doeren noted. “We lost to Florida State last year in a tough game in a conference opener. We have Louisville this year, so three good teams to open the conference slate three years in a row, which is great.”
The Wolfpack put forth a game effort against defending national champion Florida State last season, grabbing the early lead and staying in the game late until ultimately coming out on the short end of a 56-42 contest.
“You go back to last year and talk about finishing,” Doeren said. “We have had games like (FSU), where we have been ahead and didn’t finish, but we learned how to finish as the season went on. I think our team understands that, and it is so nice to have experience back from those seasons. We played freshmen from both of those years that are now second and third-year players that can be leaders when facing those guys.”
NC State enters ACC play with a 4-0 overall record and ranking third nationally in total defense.
“We’re looking forward to starting the ACC schedule, and we are right where we want to be.” Doeren said. “We wanted to finish the first third of the season 4-0, as healthy as we can be, playing a lot of players and feeling like we’re better than we were a year ago at this time. I think that is where we are. Now we have to close another gap. We couldn’t beat Louisville last year. We were close and we tried, but that’s the gap we need to close now. That’s the challenge on the table for the coaches and players this week.”
CARDINALS LOOK FOR GROUND GAME
Louisville has struggled to find a consistent running attack through its first four games. The Cardinals enter the NC State game tied for 92nd nationally with an average of a little less than 154 yards per game on the ground.
Execution and fundamentals are often thrown around to the point of being cliché, but head coach Bobby Petrino said that is the key to finding success on the ground.
“It just all works together,” Petrino said. “That is the one thing about offense; it truly is all 11 guys doing their job on every play. That’s what gives you a chance to execute and make plays and consistency of all 11 guys doing that.
“There are times that it looks like the hole is there and we don’t make the right cut. There are times when we miss a block or we don’t step with the correct foot so it is just the timing of everybody exactly what they are supposed to, getting their hands where they belong, getting push and finishing blocks and runs. I have been happy with the way receivers been in position, making blocks and hustling down field. I think they have been working hard and getting in the right position. We just have to get in the secondary more with our running backs.”
SMALL STEPS –AND A GIANT UPCOMNG FOE
Wake Forest attempted to rally from an early deficit in last weekend’s home game against unbeaten Indiana, but ultimately fell short in a 31-24 decision.
“I told the players that it’s nice to be patted on the back for great heart and effort and for coming back,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said. “But we want to be congratulated for winning. There were certainly some positives in terms of how we finished the Indiana game, but the bottom line is that we came up short in a game that we had a good opportunity to win.
“Indiana ran the ball extremely well. I thought they won both battles at the line of scrimmage. I thought that after the game, the film confirmed that. We continue to have a young team that fights and makes plays and makes improvement, but it wasn’t enough.”
That loss left the Demon Deacons at 2-2 heading into Saturday’s home game against Florida State.
“Certainly the challenge only gets greater this week as Florida State comes to town,” Clawson said. “Certainly they’ve been the class of the ACC in the last three years. They’ve won the ACC Championship three years in a row. They’re a program that’s averaged 13 wins a year over the last three years. It’s been almost three years since they’ve lost an ACC game. They’re a different team than they were a year ago, but talent-wise they’re as good a team as we’ll face all year.”
Clawson said he marvels when he scouts the Seminoles defensively, especially with veterans such as junior cornerback Jalen Ramsey and senior linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup still in the fold.
“Defensively, I think that they’re playing better than a year ago,” Clawson said. “Some of their best recruiting jobs are getting their seniors to come back. They’re an old defense; they are playing extremely well on defense. They’ve got a handful of future high-round draft picks on that side of the ball.”
REFRESHED OR RUSTY?
Pitt is one of four ACC teams coming off a bye week heading into Saturday’s games, and first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi says the jury remains out on whether that will be a help or hindrance as the Panthers travel to Virginia Tech.
“Sometimes it helps you, sometimes it hurts you,” Narduzzi said. “You never know. My wife will tell you I’m miserable sitting at home because you’re watching them play and you don’t get to go play. It’s always miserable in an open week when you’re coming off of a loss because you’ve got two weeks to sit with it as opposed to a week. You want to get back to work, correct it and bring your team back.
“It’s been good for us fundamentally. I think it’s been good health-wise as long as we continue to stay healthy through the week of practice, so I think that will benefit us. It’ll be a long stretch of nine more games to go where you don’t get an open week. I think our kids will be fine.”
FULLER WILL BE MISSED
Virginia Tech suffered a blow as it prepared for Pitt – and the remainder of the season – with this week’s announcement that standout junior cornerback Kendall Fuller underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee and will be sidelined for the remainder of the year.
Mike Goforth, Virginia Tech’s Associate Athletics Director for Sports Medicine, said Fuller actually suffered the injury in preseason camp and courageously attempted to play through it during the Hokies’ first three games.
“After this past weekend’s game, it was decided that surgery would be the best option moving forward, and Kendall will miss the remainder of the 2015 football season,” Goforth said. “The procedure was performed Tuesday morning and Kendall is expected to have a full recovery.”
While replacing an All-American at any position is never easy, head coach Frank Beamer believes the Hokies remain capable of fielding a solid secondary. Freshman Adonis Alexander has picked off two passes in the first two games, and redshirt sophomore Brandon Facyson ranks among the ACC leaders in passes successfully defended.
“We still have some people back there,” Beamer said. “Certainly you're going to miss Fuller, but we go on and bring these young guys along and keep moving.”
BLUE DEVILS CASH IN
Duke senior safety Jeremy Cash picked up four national defensive awards following last weekend’s performance against Georgia Tech. Cash spearheaded Duke’s defensive effort in the 34-20 win with 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss and one quarterback sack. Cash forced two fumbles and had four quarterback pressures.
Cash enters this Saturday’s home game against Boston College tied with the Eagles’ Harold Landry for first among ACC players in tackles for loss (8.0), and Cash’s 34 total tackles ranks sixth among conference players.
“I think we have one guy for sure, Jeremy Cash, who you put in as many situations as you can,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I think that’s part of it, Coach [Jim] Knowles (the Blue Devils’ defensive coordinator) is using his weapons and using them very well, and then players are making plays. Jeremy is a brilliant veteran … It’s called read-and-react, and he does it really well.”